Netflix’s ‘Alias Grace’ Confronts a Timely Question: Do You Believe Women?
The mystery at the heart of Netflix’s must-watch Margaret Atwood adaptation is less about whodunit and more about confronting our mistrust of women’s stories.
Initially, Alias Grace plays as a two-hander between Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), who has been imprisoned for murder for the last 15 years, and Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), the doctor hired to perform a psychiatric evaluation. Throughout the interviews Jordan conducts, Grace occupies herself with sewing together scraps of fabric to make a quilt, combining rectangular strips to create little squares. Toward the end of Netflix’s latest offering, the show—and the quilt—truly take shape. The final quilt that Grace makes is built with triangles, and that’s exactly what Alias Grace is. It’s not so simple as a rectangle; it’s a pyramid, with a woman at each point.
Much like its central mystery—i.e., whether or not Grace Marks is actually guilty of the murders of which she’s accused—Alias Grace reveals itself to us part by part, scattering clues throughout the narrative. The first episode opens with Grace looking at herself in the mirror, rattling off a list of things that have been said about her in connection with the case. With each description, she changes her expression and her bearing to fit, and in a single scene, Alias Grace makes it clear: So much of a woman’s life—both in the 1800s and now—is affected by preconceptions based on appearance, specifically the preconceptions of men.
Based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace feels unfortunately relevant to the present cultural climate. Grace is consistently boxed in by the men around her, particularly by those in positions of authority, and all of them—even Jordan—only see in her what they wish to see. Even the show seems to invite us to do the same, as the truth is always kept just out of reach; whether or not we think Grace is leading Jordan on or telling the truth says as much about the story as it says about our own inclinations. Just as Grace shifts from beat to beat in the opening of the show, the tiniest shifts in Gadon’s expression and delivery as she relays her story can make her telling seem truthful and false in turns.
The contradiction here is that part of the reason any doubt exists at all is because of the multiple accounts that exist—not as a result of Grace’s hemming and hawing, but the pushing of lawyers, the sensationalizing of the press, and the probing of the doctors she’s seen since being incarcerated. Her story has been taken out of her hands in exchange for narratives that others would find more suitable. To wit, Grace is startled when Jordan says he wants to hear her tale as she sees fit to tell it. Even the circumstances under which Jordan finds her—serving at the governor’s house as a maid—is an appropriation of her story.
Granted, part of the ambiguity comes from the fact that the real-life murder upon which Alias Grace is based never reached a decisive conclusion. The debate as to whether or not the real Grace Marks had actually committed the murders was still under debate by the time she was pardoned and set free, and left that way as, after she left the penitentiary, she essentially disappeared.
Through it all, Gadon’s performance is remarkable, all the more so for a strange turn in the final act that would be impossible to pull off if everything preceding it had been anything less than perfect. The camerawork complements her acting, as the show deals in extreme close-ups that make it impossible not to try to cross-examine what each blink and frown might mean.
She’s supported by Rebecca Lilliard as Mary Whitney, and Anna Paquin as Nancy Montgomery. Like Grace, they work in the houses in which they live, and like Grace, they’re inherently hemmed in despite the attempts they make at freedom. Both try to navigate the patriarchal society they live in by varying methods, and to varying degrees of success; Grace is witness to it all.
Just as the narrative is made up of layers—as Grace tells her story to Jordon, it slowly becomes clear that there’s another, more personal telling layered on top of it—Alias Grace expands to touch on issues of immigration and class as well. This is perhaps the show’s only stumbling block, as it’s not always successful in painting a compelling picture as such whereas the central focus on Grace and the nature of female narrative is consistently outstanding. The scene in which Grace notes how unaware anyone who’s not a servant is of servant’s work is perfect; the scene in which a comparison is drawn between racial tensions in America at the time and Grace’s supposed crime isn’t quite as good. It’s jarring to the point that it feels like it might have been better if it had been cut out completely. The effort made for inclusion is admirable, but not quite as fully fleshed out as it deserves to be.
But, that aside, Alias Grace is a beautiful piece of work. Its every detail is rewarding in a way that’s rare for television these days, especially on streaming platforms. On top of that, it’s a narrative about women, made by women, which feels like a triumph all on its own. The plot is bound to infuriate given how inconclusive it is, but the point is less to figure out whodunit and more to force us to examine our own relationship with how we consume stories about and by women.